Walker’s creative vision is rooted in the economic hardship, racial terror, and folk wisdom of African American life and culture, particularly in the rural South. Her writing explores multidimensional kinships among women and embraces the redemptive power of social and political revolution.
Walker began publishing her fiction and poetry during the latter years of the Black Arts movement in the 1960s. Her work, along with that of such writers as Toni Morrison and Gloria Naylor, however, is commonly associated with the post-1970s surge in African American women’s literature.
Early Life and Education
Alice Malsenior Walker was born in Eatonton on February 9, 1944, the eighth and youngest child of Minnie Tallulah Grant and Willie Lee Walker, who were sharecroppers. At eight years old, her brother scarred and blinded her right eye with a BB gun in a game of cowboys and Indians. Teased by her classmates and misunderstood by her family, Walker became a shy, reclusive youth. Much of her embarrassment dwindled after a doctor removed the scar tissue six years later. Although Walker eventually became high school prom queen and class valedictorian, she continued to feel like an outsider, nurturing a passion for reading and writing poetry in solitude.
In 1961 Walker left Eatonton for Spelman College, a prominent school for Black women in Atlanta, on a state scholarship. During the two years she attended Spelman she became active in the civil rights movement. After transferring to Sarah Lawrence College in New York, Walker continued her studies as well as her involvement in civil rights. In 1962 she was invited to the home of Martin Luther King Jr. in recognition of her attendance at the Youth World Peace Festival in Finland. Walker also registered Black voters in Liberty County, Georgia, and later worked for the New York City Department of Welfare.
Two years after receiving her B.A. degree from Sarah Lawrence in 1965, Walker married Melvyn Rosenman Leventhal, a white civil rights attorney. They lived in Jackson, Mississippi, where Walker worked as the Black history consultant for a Head Start program. She also served as the writer-in-residence for Jackson State College (later Jackson State University) and Tougaloo College. She completed her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, in 1969, the same year that her daughter, Rebecca Grant, was born. When her marriage to Leventhal ended in 1977, Walker moved to northern California, where she lives and writes today.
Walker has taught African American women’s studies to college students at Wellesley, the University of Massachusetts at Boston, Yale, Brandeis, and the University of California at Berkeley. She has served as a contributing editor of Ms. magazine and is a cofounder of Wild Tree Press.
Walker’s appreciation for her matrilineal literary history is evidenced by the numerous reviews and articles she has published to acquaint new generations of readers with writers like Zora Neale Hurston. The anthology she edited, I Love Myself When I Am Laughing… and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader (1979), was particularly instrumental in bringing Hurston’s work back into print. In addition to her deep admiration for Hurston, Walker’s literary influences include Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer, Black Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks, South African novelist Bessie Head, and white Georgia writer Flannery O’Connor.
The poems in Walker’s first volume, Once (1968), are based on her experiences during the civil rights movement and her travels to Africa. Influenced by Japanese haiku and the philosophy of author Albert Camus, Once also contains meditations on love and suicide. Indeed, after Walker visited Africa during the summer of 1964, she had struggled with an unwanted pregnancy upon her return to college. She speaks openly in her writing about the mental and physical anguish she experienced before deciding to have an abortion. The poems in Once grew not only from the sorrowful period in which Walker contemplated death but also from her triumphant decision to reclaim her life.
Many of the narrative poems of her second volume, Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems (1973), revisit her southern past, while other verses challenge superficial political militancy. The collection won the Lillian Smith Book Award (named for Georgia writer Lillian Smith and administered by the Southern Regional Council) in 1973. Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning (1979) contains tributes to Black political leaders and creative writers. In addition to a fourth volume of poetry, Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful (1984), Walker has compiled her previously published verses in the collection Her Blue Body Everything We Know: Earthling Poems 1965-1990 Complete (1991). In a review of Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth: New Poems (2003), Publishers Weekly highlighted the volume’s spiritual and ecological topics and added that Walker “explor[es] and prais[es] friendship, romantic love, home cooking, the peace movement, ancestors, ethnic diversity, and particularly admirable strong women, among them the primatologist Jane Goodall.” Other volumes include A Poem Traveled Down My Arm (2005), Hard Times Require Furious Dancing: New Poems (2010), and Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart (2018)
Short Fiction and Essays
One of Walker’s earliest stories, “To Hell with Dying,” captured the attention of poet Langston Hughes, who included it in his 1967 anthology, The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers. In the tale, which is based on actual events, the joy and laughter of children rescue an old guitar player named Mr. Sweet from the brink of death year after year. The narrator—a girl at the start of the story—returns home as a young woman to “revive” Mr. Sweet, but with no success. After his death she inherits the bluesman’s guitar and his enduring legacy of love.
“To Hell with Dying” was reprinted in Walker’s first collection of short fiction, In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women (1973). The thirteen stories in this volume feature Black women struggling to transcend society’s narrow definitions of their intelligence and virtue. Her second collection, You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down: Stories (1982), continues her vivid portrayal of women’s experiences by emphasizing such sensitive issues as rape and abortion. In 2000 Walker published a third collection of stories, The Way Forward Is with a Broken Heart. She has also written children’s books, including an illustrated version of To Hell with Dying (1988) and Finding the Green Stone (1991).
Walker has published several volumes of essays and autobiographical reflections. In the 1983 collection In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, she introduced readers to a new ideological approach to feminist thought. Her term womanist characterizes Black feminists who cherish women’s creativity, emotional flexibility, and strength. Womanism is further used to suggest new ways of reading silence and subjugation in narratives of male domination. The collection won the Lillian Smith Book Award in 1984. Other essay collections include The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult (1996), which features Walker’s account of her struggle with Lyme disease during the filming of The Color Purple, and Sent by Earth: A Message from the Grandmother Spirit: After the Attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon (2002).
In 2012 she published Anything We Love Can be Saved: A Writer’s Activism, in which she discusses her lifetime work as a political activist. According to Walker “my activism—cultural, political, spiritual—is rooted in my love of nature and my delight in human beings.” In her early years she was active in the civil rights movement and participated in voter registration campaigns in the Deep South. Likewise, her writings have explored feminism, “womanism,” blackness, and personal identity. In more recent years, Walker has supported antinuclear and environmental causes, and her protests against the oppressive rituals of female circumcision in Africa and the Middle East make her a vocal advocate for international women’s rights. She is also known for her support of Palestine and has protested against Israeli policies in Gaza. In a 2018 interview with the New York Times Book Review, Walker endorsed David Icke’s And the Truth Shall Set You Free. This controversial work contains conspiracy theories and numerous negative portrayals of Jewish individuals. Critics, in turn, accused Walker of anti-Semitism.
Like her short stories, Walker’s novels place more emphasis on the inner workings of African American life than on the relationships between Black and white people. Her first book, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), details the sorrow and redemption of a rural Black family trapped in a multigenerational cycle of violence and economic dependency. Walker also fictionalizes a young civil rights activist’s coming-of-age in the novel Meridian (1976).
The Color Purple (1982) has generated the most public attention as a book and as a major motion picture. Narrated through the voice of Celie, The Color Purple is an epistolary novel—a work structured through a series of letters. Celie writes about the misery of childhood incest, physical abuse, and loneliness in her “letters to God.” After being repeatedly raped by her stepfather, Celie is forced to marry a widowed farmer with three children. Yet her deepest hopes are realized with the help of a loving community of women, including her husband’s mistress, Shug Avery, and Celie’s sister, Nettie. Celie gradually learns to see herself as a desirable woman, a healthy and valuable part of the universe.
Set in rural Georgia during segregation, The Color Purple brings components of nineteenth-century slave autobiography and sentimental fiction together with a confessional narrative of sexual awakening. Walker’s harshest critics have condemned her portrayal of Black men in the novel as “male-bashing,” but others praise her forthright depiction of taboo subjects and her clear rendering of folk idiom and dialect. In 1985 the novel was adapted into a film, directed by Steven Spielberg. The musical stage adaptation premiered at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta in 2004 and opened on Broadway in 2005.
Literary scholars often link The Color Purple with Walker’s next two novels in an informal trilogy. Celie’s granddaughter, Fanny, is a major character in The Temple of My Familiar (1989), and the protagonist of Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992) is Tashi, the African wife of Celie’s son. In Walker’s novel By the Light of My Father’s Smile (1998), strong sexual and religious themes intersect in a tale narrated from both sides of the grave. The novel features a family of African American anthropologists who journey to Mexico to study a tribe descended from formerly enslaved Black and Native American people. In Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart (2004) the main character, Kate, embarks on a literal and spiritual journey to find a way to accept the aging process. Walker says that Kate’s search is necessary because the territory is largely “uncharted,” and “people seem to lose their imagination about what women’s lives can be after, say, 55 or 60.”
Reflecting on the unique perspective and versatility of her literary career, Walker says, “One thing I try to have in my life and my fiction is an awareness of and openness to mystery, which, to me, is deeper than any politics, race, or geographical location.” With elements of ancestral fable and spirituality, womanist insight, literary realism, and the grotesque, Walker’s writing embodies an abundant cultural landscape of its own.